David Freed ’10 and Mike McGroddy ’09 joined 8 Rivers in 2011 after interning there, when it was a small company with four or five employees.

Now, the two are principals at 8 Rivers, a company that looks to change the course of humanity with technology. They have recently been recognized on Forbes’ 30 Under 30 List in the Energy category for their work on NET Power, a carbon capture company that stemmed from 8 Rivers.

“It feels surreal,” Freed said. “This entrepreneurship thing is such a rollercoaster. You can have your worst day and your best day in the same day.”

The two biomedical engineering majors have been entrepreneurs since college, when McGroddy’s technology took second place in the Duke Startup Challenge. A year later, Freed worked with the same doctors McGroddy had, and the two joined forces to start Intuitive Ophthalmics, a company developing eye devices.

8 Rivers provided the capital they needed to prototype their devices, and then they both worked on Intuitive Ophthalmics part-time while Freed worked in consulting at New York-based BCG and while McGroddy pursued his master’s in engineering management at Duke.

But soon they both returned to 8 Rivers, where they found themselves working on NET Power more and more.

“We joined up right at the time when we all realized what the opportunity was and the amount of work needed to get it from just a back-of-envelope idea to a concept that you can show to any respectable company,” McGroddy said.

So the two decided to retire their eye device company to focus on NET Power and other projects at 8 Rivers. They’ve helped take an idea – a new way to use carbon capture for fossil fuels in a way that’s clean and cost-efficient – to a reality – the company’s $140 million demo power plant in Texas will fire up this year.

“We’ve been working on this for six years now, so to get some recognition is pretty awesome,” Freed said, adding that he hopes the honor will help raise awareness about the importance of clean energy.

NET Power uses a new technology – called the Allam Cycle after one of the creators, Rodney Allam – to burn fossil fuels, in this case natural gas, and capture the carbon dioxide that is released. The carbon dioxide is then used to create useful byproducts instead of being released into the atmosphere.

Traditionally, carbon capture is expensive. But NET Power’s goal, Freed said, is to bring the cost to near zero so that the decision to use carbon capture will become an economic choice instead of an environmental choice.

“It’s attractive to be able to help develop a technology that disrupts the industry,” McGroddy said.

8 Rivers has kept their team small – there are still only a handful of employees in their Durham office who work on NET Power. But the company’s partnerships with Exelon, Chicago Bridge & Iron and Toshiba have helped to develop the power plant.

“Not only did we get validation from these companies, but we also got access to all these amazing people that we can leverage for success,” Freed said.

Not only will Freed and McGroddy be testing at the demo power plant and validating NET Power’s technology, but they will also be working on other technologies at 8 Rivers, such as a way to get things to space cheaply and a way to provide fiber internet speeds at wireless costs.

“We’re now investing resources into these other technologies, so hopefully we’ll be able to level up on what we’re able to achieve here and prove we’re not just a one-hit wonder but can replicate the model in a few of the other technologies,” he said.

Freed advises everyone to experiment in their 20s, noting that people often revert back to what they’re passionate about even after trying a “traditional” job, just as he did.

“People looked at me like I was nuts when I left BCG to come down to this little company in Durham that didn’t have much more than an interesting idea,” he said.

But entrepreneurship is difficult, both Freed and McGroddy warned, and they recognize that failure is always a possibility.

What’s gotten them through the ups and downs, they said, is working with the team at 8 Rivers who collectively want to change the world.

To learn more about NET Power, visits its website.

To read about more Duke entrepreneurs, click here.


By Katie Jansen

Logo for NET Power